This month, Fusion Arts on Stanton Street has mounted a show of photographs by Harvey Wang documenting the life and death of Adam Purple's earthwork The Garden of Eden. The show runs until February 20. I asked Harvey some questions about the work.
photo by Harvey Wang
How did you get into photographing The Garden of Eden?
I first met Adam Purple in 1978, when journalist Norman Green and I did a story about him for New York Magazine. I found him to be one of the most intelligent and interesting people I had ever met, and though I didn't understand half the things he was talking about, I continued to visit him over the years. He had been doing his own documentation of The Garden of Eden with a small box camera. As The Garden of Eden grew, he needed to shoot more and more pictures, which had to be arranged into larger composite images to show the whole site. I showed up one year with a 15 mm Nikon rectilinear lens, and from then on, Adam would ask me to come document The Garden's expansion. I enjoyed shooting the project because he was doing everything by hand, without power tools, which was remarkable. It was back-breaking labor, day in and day out. He cleared five lots of demolished tenement rubble, made the soil, and planted The Garden, reclaiming about one lot per year.
What did The Garden of Eden mean to the people of the neighborhood at the time?
Adam built a 4-foot-high Connecticut dry-stone wall with stones he had salvaged from the tenements that were being demolished all around The Garden. On top of the wall, he put bed springs and planted black raspberry bushes. All this was to protect The Garden, mostly from dogs, but not to keep people out. It was never locked. The Garden was always open for visitors. There were celebrations in The Garden--a wedding, a Rainbow gathering, other things. I remember Adam inviting people to plant their own vegetables. Kids were always around, planting things and eating what grew there. The Garden was open to the community, but it was also a radical political and artistic statement, which some people found unsettling. But for the most part, people really appreciated that there was this green oasis in the midst of a pretty rough area.
photo by Harvey Wang
You were present during The Garden's destruction. What do you recall from that experience?
I was present when The Garden wall was destroyed in September 1985. It took two days to destroy the wall, so there was time to get the word out to supporters. Many people were in The Garden when the bulldozers destroyed the wall, raspberry bushes, perimeter beds, and the sign. A few sat down in the bulldozer's path in an attempt to stop them. There were police and city officials as well. Adam never came out, and I am not even sure he looked out his window at the ongoing destruction. A few months later, on January 8, 1986, the city stealthily returned with a large rubber-tired construction vehicle, and ran over The Garden until the site was cleared. They didn't recycle or save anything. They just trashed it. All they left was the Chinese Empress tree, which stands today in the courtyard of the "Infill" housing project that is on the site.
It's been 25 years since the destruction and the Lower East Side has changed dramatically. Is there any way something like The Garden of Eden could ever rise again on the LES?
Real estate is too precious for something like this to be built nowadays. However, if The Garden had been built in our times, I am sure it would be celebrated because of its forward-looking message about living in balance with the natural world. Adam has to be one of the first people to talk about sustainability issues. It's still radical now, and was more so back then. Had Adam's original Garden survived, luxury condos would be built around it today, so it would be harder to appreciate the revolutionary idea it embodied. But it would be recognized as an important earthwork and artwork, and it would provide much-needed green space.
photo by Harvey Wang
Where is Adam Purple these days?
Adam is 80, living in New York, here and there. He still shuns gasoline-powered vehicles and uses his bicycle to get around. He stopped wearing the purple tie-dye after The Garden was destroyed, and mostly shares his passions about species survival on the internet via his Yahoo! group: speciesurvivalibrary.
I just heard a rumor from the Bowery Boogie blog that he may be behind the recent spate of Toynbee Tiles. What do you think? Possible or just an urban myth?
I doubt it. At this point in Adam's life, he's not trying to be enigmatic. He wants people to wake up and realize that our degradation of the environment could lead to the extinction of our species. That's what he was talking about when he was making The Garden, in his own unique way.
You've photographed and filmed so much of the city. What's next for Harvey Wang?
It's been an interesting period for me of looking back and looking forward. Later this year, the Tenement Museum is mounting an exhibit of my photographs from the 1980s in their soon-to-be opened building on the corner of Orchard and Delancey. The photographs document what was going on in the tenement neighborhoods (Chinatown, Little Italy, LES, East Village) in the late 1970s-1980s. I am also working on a documentary film about photography. There is a short documentary film by me and my wife Amy, called Adam Purple and The Garden of Eden, and it's having its debut at the Lower East Side Film Festival this month. I would like to see it play at other festivals, to get the word out about Adam and his work.